Thank you for being a teacher

Just as children are more than the sum of their grades, teachers are more than the performance data they present at pupil progress meetings; their impact runs so much deeper and the effects of their teaching will be seen and felt by their pupils long after they have left their care.

At this time of year, when the sum of a teacher’s work is viewed through the microscopic data lens and all their sterling efforts are translated into a percentage of pupils who met national standards, it is easy to think that it was only their measurable impact that counted. All the planning, worrying, caring, discussing, sharing, creating, innovating and chivvying along was all for this: a number.

But it wasn’t. Data has a habit of eclipsing the good stuff: the flashes of inspiration; the epiphanies; the motivational moments; the character-building and life-defining minutes when a child suddenly feels a little happier in their own skin; the rainy mornings spent cajoling and chivvying; the lunchtimes spent listening and sympathising; the afternoons spent stirring and inspiring; the evenings spent worrying and rewriting tomorrow’s lessons just so the children will grasp a concept they missed today; the guiding, the counselling, the entertaining and praising. These cherished crafts and skills form a teacher’s repertoire and though they may be hidden when the exam results come in, their impact stretches far into the future, all the way into a child’s adulthood.

We often tell children it is the deep-down-things that matter most: self-worth, confidence, pride, compassion. But as teachers we rarely tell ourselves this and seldom let the compliments stick. The attritional nature of the job can strip a teacher of her health and well-being, shrinking her spirit and narrowing her view of education, so that eventually all that matters are the numbers. When her performance management targets speak of pupil outcomes, this only confirms her impression that she is, when all said and done, only as good as her pupils’ measurable results.

When a person who doesn’t teach asks a teacher to explain the impact of what she does, and the answer must be given in percentage points, how is she to respond? Sadly, it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy and the many reasons why she entered the profession – to move the dial, make a difference, build characters, grow aspirations, tell stories and inspire imaginations – all seem silly now. She has been measured and has not come up to standard.

So, in the remaining weeks of term, and the long and rocky descent to August, can I remind this teacher of the amazing moments she has had, as the Sherpa on the mountain for her young climbers. The data won’t tell her, so I will.

– when a child arrived late, in tears, and she cheered him up and settled him into class;

– when two boys fell out, and she heard each one’s stories, brought a peaceful resolution and watched them playing happily again in the playground;

– when an anxious parent barged uninvited into her classroom to tell her she didn’t care about her child, and she provided calm reassurance and understanding;

– when she worried all night before a lesson observation, and then absolutely smashed it on the day;

– when a child who just couldn’t get fractions finally did;

– when a little girl told her that her daddy was leaving home, and she cuddled her and helped her see that everything would be alright in the end because both her parents loved her very much;

– when a child who rarely smiled laughed out loud at her joke.

There were so many more golden moments along the way. And a million more from last year. I hope all teachers take time this summer to remember the reasons why they entered this amazing, inspiring and utterly essential vocation. The children’s lives just wouldn’t be the same without you. Whatever the numbers say.

You are making a world of difference – just like you said you would.

 

Running the curriculum

The word curriculum, meaning a running course, comes from the Latin word, currere: to run.  The first borrowing of the Latin word into English was curricle, meaning a two-wheeled, twin-horsed carriage. Curricular meant pertaining to, or driving, carriages. In English, curriculum was not used in an educational context until much later, first in Scottish universities and then in schools and colleges across Britain and beyond. Until then, a curriculum was a course that you ran or traversed in some way.

Curriculum no longer refers to movement, at least not in schools; the word is now more likely to be associated with a large, heavy ring-binder of objectives. There is little movement involved and the only curricle you can use to traverse it is your brain.

How comprehensively the course of life was codified and compartmentalised into a curriculum for students to traverse is a subject of great debate, political and societal. Were we to peg out such a course now, with its lanes and hurdles, bends and dips, it is unlikely we would create a similar track to the one we have. A curriculum for the 21stcentury would look different, surely?

Like everything in education, we have tampered with the track over the years, bolting on units and adding more and more hurdles and time trials without ever adjusting its direction. The track still remains circular, and after the final lap you are back to where you started, more knowledgeable and ready for a life of school, just when you exit it.

There is no handbook for the course of one’s career (from the Latin word carrus, meaning wagon). You gallop along on a path that barely resembles the running track of school. The curriculum we know as students is pegged out in academic subjects. Assimilating and recalling core knowledge drawn from those subjects is a requirement for passing school examinations. To what purpose you put that knowledge once you have embarked on your curriculum vitae, your life’s course, is anyone’s guess. But our consolation is that the proficiencies and disciplines developed whilst traversing the school curriculum are, in themselves, of great worth. That is to say, the computer engineers who built my ZX81, almost forty years ago, would have amassed critical skills that outlived the use and relevance of the product they were actually building. Coincidentally, the National Curriculum was forged in the same decade, but unlike the ZX81, it hasn’t been replaced.

And so we take comfort from the fact that no matter what you think of the curriculum still delivered in schools today, the learning skills and attitudes acquired by students while studying it may still be of use in their future careers. This is the fortuitous by-product which educators like me champion.

This would be consolation enough if the curriculum were inert – a harmless collection of study topics and themes designed to increase your academic knowledge – but it’s not. There is an insidious side to the curriculum, and it’s this: the ease or difficulty with which a student assimilates the curriculum’s content is held as a measure of their ability as a learner, and more than this, the score they achieve when this curriculum knowledge is then tested impacts significantly on their life chances. This is because we have built a whole career structure and hierarchy around the gaining, or not gaining, of academic qualifications in school. If you don’t learn the curriculum content well enough, you fail exams; if you fail exams you do not get into university (which, apparently all students are supposed to attend if they want a successful career?). Consequently, the large, heavy ring-binder of knowledge, to be consumed by the runners in the race, sifts the readers and writers from the non-readers and non-writers. The former go on to successful jobs and the latter don’t, apparently. Yet all the wealthy and contented entrepreneurs I know (granted, I only know a handful) proudly say they flunked school and did not go to university.

How did we reach this point? Metaphorically, we drop a heavy curriculum on a young child’s lap, ask them to learn it, and imply that if they don’t learn it, their future life chances will shrink. This is a myth. Our youngest riders bolt out of the blocks only to be diverted on their course at the first bend and told how to ride, where to ride and that the race was being timed from the outset, with their lap scores being written down and used as predictions for their future position at the end of the race.

Forgive the rant. As a primary headteacher waiting for SATs results, and a father of teenagers currently immersed in GCSEs and A Levels, I may be feeling a little tired of the system. I have cried from the rooftops that my children, and all children, are more than the sum of their grades. I have reassured them that no matter what they achieve in their school tests, the course of life that stretches beyond them does not balance on the pinhead of exam scores; I have told them that who, where and what they will be when they are older will not be determined now, so they shouldn’t worry. They have plenty of time to write their life stories.

What I cannot tell them, for fear of tramping over what little motivation they have left, is that the exams they are sitting are based on a thirty-year old curriculum that is no longer reflective of real life and real careers (not that it ever was). I don’t want them to feel their efforts have been in vain, they haven’t, and I’m enormously proud of how hard they have worked. The learning skills and disciplines they have amassed, and the positive mindsets they have just about managed to keep intact, despite the attrition of revising and testing, will stand them in very good stead when they are older. They will be successful and contented adults not because of the curriculum they have learned, but because they have survived it, and because of the motivational teaching they have received from rebellious teachers who have found creative ways of delivering it. Imagine working as a sales assistant in a computer shop, charged with selling the ZX81 to a 21stcentury teenager. This is what teachers have been doing for years.

It is time to start again, time to build a new curriculum, a course for life, that requires an active rather than passive stance and a honing of attitudes, behaviours and capacities that will have proper use and relevance in today’s world. The ring-binder of words will still have knowledge running through its spine – no one is suggesting we depart from knowledge, such cries are hackneyed and only lead to polarising and pointless debates between trad’s and romantics – but it can include knowledge of self, of others, of human endeavour. An ‘i-curriculum’ version 2.0 could include knowledge about intuition, instinct, initiative, intelligence and imagination. These aren’t ethereal concepts for the fairies, they are real human facets much in demand outside school.

Until then, students will continue to strive for an A* in maths without ever really knowing why.

There are life lessons learned in school that stretch far, far beyond the visible curriculum. The ring-binder may be filled with words, but there are non-verbal lessons being learned all the time too, and these need better recognition in school. If the direction of the running course in school doesn’t lead us to where we need to be, then the skills and attitudes we honed whilst participating in the race certainly will. That’s why I continue to make such a noise about the hidden curriculum. It is the most relevant and valuable course of study and it does not end at 16; its linear track stretches on through life.

 

 

When you find your element

What’s your thing? Everybody needs a thing: that skill or hobby which absorbs you and beckons you into a flow state, being ‘in the zone’ and free of distractions. It may be something artistic, musical, or perhaps a sporting activity. Or it may be a collection – a fascination for something that captures your interest and pleases you.

As a headteacher, one of my most important tasks is making sure that our school provides ample opportunities for children to try out myriad skills and activities precisely so that they can find their thing. Yes, the academic curriculum is important, of course it is, and it may even be that some children will find their element in a maths or science lesson. But equally important are those fringe activities, the extra-curricular clubs and events that bring enticing opportunities to write, ride, play, climb, paint or dance. We all have hidden potential just waiting to be discovered and there is nothing more pleasing for a teacher than seeing a child engage with a new activity and then discovering they have a hidden talent for it.

I frequently champion the deep-down-things that really matter in education: qualities like stamina, pride and self-worth. When children are immersed in a pursuit which they love, they invariably demonstrate all the hidden characteristics of effective learning that we could ever wish for in class, often without even knowing it; so immersed are they in their flow state that such attributes come naturally – because they are invested in what they are doing and it matters to them. A favourite pursuit is, after all, by definition something we need to ‘pursue’ and stamina is a pre-requisite for a high level of engagement.

A child who has found their thing, who has a passion for something, is topping up their reserves of stamina and pride so that they can take on anything, even the things which don’t motivate them. In finding something we’re good at, we are finding our self-worth; and self-worth allows us to take on new and difficult challenges with renewed strength and resilience. The child who is gifted at something will be better at reading or arithmetic than they might have been had they never discovered they had those other talents. That’s not to say that kicking a football like Lionel Messi automatically qualifies you for an A grade in mathematics, no more than playing the trumpet like Louis Armstrong means you can achieve top marks in science, but it does mean that you can stick around a little longer when the going gets tough, because you have done precisely that on the sports field or in music lessons many times before – and you can do it again.  You can achieve the same high level of engagement because you know what it feels like and it can be transferred. I have often said to students who are struggling with something in class, what would you do if this were a football challenge, or a new piece of music you had to tackle?  Or a drama script? Find the same mind-set and use it here!

Having a hobby to which we are committed teaches us self-discipline too – and there are few attributes more valuable to learners than self-discipline. The challenge is making the connection between how you perform in your favourite hobby and how you perform in class – because the context is often so different and because, crucially, you may not have the same freedom of choice in class as you do when engaging in your own passion.

A hobby is something you have chosen to do; a learning activity in class is often, though not always, something which you are instructed to do by a teacher, relating to a learning objective. This fundamental difference sometimes zaps the student of his self-motivation and reduces his engagement and interest in class. But it needn’t.

The real challenge is tapping into and re-channelling the ‘best-self’ you become when immersed in your hobby, so that you can draw on the same attributes again when faced with other things. The same self-worth can be embedded in us so that it is no longer dependent on the activity we are engaged in, it is innate within us, part of our nature. We are high engagers.

This is another important part of a teacher’s job – helping children to remember that they really can show resilience and stamina, or pride and self-worth because it was these qualities which brought them success and satisfaction in their hobbies. And they can draw on them again.

As an adult, I have tried and still enjoy many pursuits, not all of which I’m especially good at, but all of which hold my interest and make me feel good. I love writing, sketching, playing the drums, gardening, walking, camping and swimming. I wouldn’t win medals in any of these pursuits (except perhaps in drumming, which I feel confident enough in, after practising Buddy Rich’s snare-drum rudiments since the age of ten). But winning medals is not what drives me; it is the intoxication of being immersed in something to the point where I forget my worries and let the activity lead me. Playing paradiddles does it for me.

If only I could step outside myself and watch me engaging in these activities! I could then see that I have stamina, self-discipline, self-worth and a decent amount of talent. I could then remind myself of these qualities when the next difficult challenge comes along, which for me is analysing school performance data or completing any kind of online form.

When you next engage in your favourite past-time, it is worth consciously focusing on what until now may have been entirely sub-conscious – the qualities you are exercising when you are ‘in the zone’: you can manage distractions and remain focused; you can overcome difficulties and reach the high points; you can show creativity and flair; and you can master a skill that makes you feel good about yourself.

And aren’t all these qualities transferrable? I think they are.

First published in the Bury Free Press, Friday 3rd May 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Beneath the iceberg

In a recent TEDx talk I was fortunate enough to deliver, I suggested how there are two curricula at play in every school, every day:

  1. A visible, fixed curriculum made up of subjects, driven by the National Curriculum, and planned, taught and assessed by teachers.
  2. An invisible, dynamic curriculum made up of attitudes, behaviours and capacities, driven by a school’s culture and modelled by teachers.

Where the visible curriculum requires proficiency in knowledge retention, reasoning, applied logic and computational capacity, the invisible curriculum asks for instinct, intuition, inquiry and creativity. Where the visible curriculum delivers important but largely abstract, propositional knowledge and learned proficiencies, the invisible curriculum delivers experiential, tacit knowledge gained through our sensory experiences and social encounters.

Though we spend many hours planning, teaching and assessing the visible curriculum, it remains abstract for many primary children; it is the invisible curriculum that is real and it is influenced by children’s emotional state. As Eric Jensen says, how we feel is what’s real, it’s the link to what we think.’ if the visible curriculum delivers academic outcomes, the invisible curriculum delivers attitudes, behaviours and skills for life.

So what is driving the invisible curriculum? Or does it just ‘happen’ by virtue of multiple humans working, playing and learning together? Can it be codified? Designed?

It is driven by a school’s culture, the shared beliefs, values and customs that shape students’ emerging views of the world. And culture happens in school whether you like it, or know it, or not. Leaders are the cultural architects of their schools and teachers are the cultural architects of their classrooms.

Enough words already! Here is a graphic that I hope illustrates how the curriculum landscape and the cultural climate of a school co-exist. Both are essential elements in education, but currently one receives more attention than the other. Could this change?

View the TEDx talk here

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 15.24.47

 

Teaching for Creativity

Taken from my book, Teaching for Creativity (John Catt Educational: 2015), this short blog offers a simple, four-stage process for developing children’s creativity in schools.

According to Kneller (1965), creativity is too flexible and too capricious a phenomenon to be easily defined. But there has been no shortage of definitions for it in recent decades. Golden (2007) suggests that creativity is ‘a collaboration between your conscious and unconscious mind’. Jupp, Fairly and Bentley (2001) believe creativity arises from ‘a complex interaction between many different factors – knowledge and expertise, curiosity, motivation, information, time, stimuli and reward.’

Stein (1984) calls for freedom: ‘the freedom for study and preparation, the freedom for exploration and enquiry, the freedom of expression and the freedom to be yourself.’

Craft (2005) says that at the core of creative activity is ‘possibility thinking’.

And Sir Ken Robinson (1999) famously defined creativity as ‘having original ideas of value’.

For me, the nature of creativity – and how it can be developed in schools – is neatly illustrated in an object from my childhood – my Nanna’s button box.

My grandparents lived in Weston Super Mare and I fondly remember trips down the M5 with my parents and brothers, from our home in the West Midlands. We had no mobile phones, no iPads, no Xboxes and no computers. But I spent hours entertained by my Nanna’s wooden box of buttons – a large, rectangular open tray with a handle across the top. It was divided into several felt-lined compartments and each one housed the most extraordinary delights you could imagine. Shiny blue ones, pearly white ones, two holes, four holes, leather toggles, great big brass ones, tiny red spherical ones. Some so small you could imagine an elf sewing them onto a shirt, others so large they must have fallen from a giant’s duffle coat. And then there were the military ones, my favourites, with emblems and crests and royal coats of arms. I could imagine the places they’d seen, peering like eyes from the tunic of a sailor.

How I loved that button box. I’d spend hours rifling through it, listening to the clickerty-clack of the little buttons rattling in the tray, running my fingers through them like sand on the beach at the end of my grandparents’ road. Watching the colours as I blended them all together into a multi-coloured, chunky soup. Laying them out in rows and creating patterns across the floor. Threading them onto string and making my Nanna a necklace or my father a pretend wristwatch. Button men, button roads, button food and button jewellery. How could anyone resist their enticing appeal? I’m sure you could design a game app today offering buttons in a box, but you couldn’t run your hands through them.

I have thought a great deal about why I was so transfixed by those buttons – why hours would pass unnoticed while I was so absorbed, or ‘in flow state’ as we call it today. I’ve often mentioned that button box when delivering CPD training in schools and it’s astonishing the number of teachers who smile and nod their head. It seems I wasn’t the only one who liked playing with buttons as a child. There is an enduring fascination in childhood for sorting, shaping and creating.

I know now what I was doing during those trips to Weston. I was engaging in pure, unfettered creativity and there were four distinct stages to it.

PERCEIVING

Firstly, I was using perception. I rifled, sifted, flicked and clicked. I swirled them around and studied all the colour combinations and varieties. I studied them with great care and interest. Their differences intrigued me – so many variables in one wooden box. I used my senses to get to know them all, see and feel them, hear them clickerty-clack in my hand, become familiar with all the constituent parts of the creations that were to follow.

CONNECTING

Secondly, I made connections. I loved nothing better than dropping them over the carpet and sorting them into different categories, coloured or plain, two holes or four, round ones, toggles, odd shaped ones, plastic or metal. There was something very pleasing and therapeutic about the practice of sorting them into groups. I remember, years later, I found myself working night-shifts in a petrol station as a student. I used to tip the packets of cigarettes all over the kiosk floor just so that I could sort them out again. Their different coloured designs pleased me and they stacked up so well together – making an ideal Jenga substitute during the small hours.

SYNTHESISING

Back in Weston, there then followed a really exciting stage in my work with those buttons, the synthesis. I blended and connected and combined those buttons to create original designs and products, from sculptures and collages to roads, figures and jewellery. These were different every time and I was proud of them. They meant something to me and those buttons allowed me to give vent to my imagination in a physical way. The button box was a palette and I was the artist, synthesising the elements together with imagination and vision. It didn’t occur to me that there was a wrong way or a right way to build a button man, or a button chain – so I wasn’t afraid to ‘have a go’ and just see what I could make. It was the same with Lego – a construction toy with which I am still obsessed today. Back then, of course, I would grab any pieces I could find from the giant tub of crusty blocks and knock up a vehicle, a spaceship or a hobbit’s hovel from my imagination. Now, as an adult, I mindlessly follow Lego kit instructions and call it therapeutic.

PRESENTING

After the synthesis stage came the final part, the presentation. This was the much anticipated ‘tadaah’ moment, when I ran into the kitchen to my gran, pulled her by the hand into the front room and said ‘Tadaah! What do you think, Nanna?’ A rapturous response always ensued. Nanna’s arthritic hands were misshapen and twisted but I knew she had once loved playing with those buttons as much as I did and my elaborate designs never failed to bring a smile to her face.

The four stages of my button work were of equal importance, though I didn’t realise it at the time. All I knew was there was a procedure to it, a kind of ritual that I always followed, enjoying each stage, and especially the last.

Perceiving, connecting, synthesising, presenting. You need all four stages for creativity to flourish in schools. And my book is about how to plan for each of them in the classroom.

Teaching for Creativity, Andrew Hammond

 

 

Change the assessment and everything else can change.

From values and beliefs to mission statements, aims and purposes, the culture of a school is the symbolic glue that binds everything and everyone together.

If culture offers a blueprint for ‘how we do things around here’, curriculum provides the ‘what’ – a context for our activities and interactions. The two could coexist perfectly well if it wasn’t for a third element of school life, whose dominance acts like a brick wall separating culture and curriculum: I am talking about assessment.

Culture is built with community in mind. The aspirational words and phrases commonly found on a school’s website, in a prospectus and displayed in entrance halls and corridors, are there to promote social harmony, equal opportunity and synergy across the school’s community. These values-based appellations provide a script to leaders and teachers so they can promote positive attitudes and behaviours for learning.

Culture happens regardless of whether you have such words, and choose to use them, or not; but pegging out shared beliefs and values is better than allowing a culture to grow toxic through neglect. It would be ideal if a culture’s default setting were one of harmony and inclusion, without the need to actively promote positive behaviours, but sadly this may not be the case (as Golding’s Lord of the Fliesshows us). So we work to keep it positive.

Curriculum gives us all something to do. The canon of knowledge and proficiencies which we deem to be worth acquiring are laid out neatly in year-by-year chunks. A syllabus is planned and taught in classrooms – providing an agenda for the day’s learning activities and interactions. It is an arbitrary list of topics and skills; we could have chosen anything really, and I am still scratching my head trying to understand why algebra enjoys so much air-time, but it’s supposed to be a level-playing field and the attitudes and character traits acquired whilst ploughing through the curriculum topics are as beneficial to the students as the content itself.

Schools are beginning to recognise the value of ‘dual learning’ – learning how to learn at the same time as learning maths or science or geography. Some call it learnability, learning habits or learning powers.

It is possible, then, to deliver a curriculum at the same time as developing the attitudes, behaviours and capacities promoted by the culture that surrounds it. There is nothing in the curriculum that prevents this from happening.

You can learn how algebra works at the same time as developing resilience; if you try to solve an algebraic equation with your learning partner, you can develop some collaborative problem-solving and communication skills whilst you are tackling it.

The problem is assessment– or I should say, our obsession with it. The aims of a school’s culture and the aims of its curriculum rarely coalesce when you add assessment into the mix. It seems that everything which takes place in a school nowadays has to have a visible, measurable impact on pupils’ own individual attainment and progress scores. The success or inadequacy of a school today is measured almost exclusively by its performance data – the number of individuals who have met national expectations. So the emphasis is always on individual achievement. And our assessment procedures are honed and hammered into a design that filters out anything other than quantitative data that helps us rank individuals’ attainment and progress.

You could teach geography in such a way that brings culture and curriculum neatly together: geographical knowledge and skills can be taught alongside cooperation, communication, environmental and social responsibility, and creativity. Topics you find in a geography syllabus can be the context for collaborative work; you can provide opportunities to research and plan together, deliver presentations and problem-solve to find creative solutions to environmental problems.

In the same way, you can teach grammar or punctuation in real-world scenarios that bring meaning and purpose, through mantle of the expert, writing in role as marketing directors or sales & advertising executives working as a team. Or you can teach mathematics through construction projects or young entrepreneur initiatives.

Good teachers do this all the time, but it carries a risk, because at the end of term, when the summative assessments come around again, pupils will not be tested on the collaborative or communication skills they have picked up, or the resilient ways in which they have pursued their curiosity, or exercised their critical thinking; they will be assessed on the curriculum content they can remember. If creative and collaborative learning activities do not ultimately deliver adequate knowledge retention, then they will be challenged. If pupils’ attainment scores are low, then the creative practices the teacher employed in class will be questioned, no matter how much they may have helped to instil the values espoused in the school’s culture at the same time, and no matter how much such creative teaching may have raised pupils’ engagement too. These benefits are not currently measured.

This is why some teachers teach only from the front and why learning objectives are often reduced to uninspiring sentences taken directly from NC programmes of study. ‘Today we are learning to… apply phonic knowledge to decode route words.’

Schools must demonstrate that every pupil has made individual progress; so assessment procedures, from marking books to setting exams and sorting and ranking the results, are designed to show the progress which each individual has made. Assessments at the end of a  topic inevitably influence the learning that is planned at the beginning of it.

Ours is not a curriculum for learning, it is a curriculum for assessing. It is not a curriculum-based assessment, it is an assessment-based curriculum and the aim is for every individual to make progress.

But the worlds of work and leisure beyond school do not work in this individualistic way.

Take sport. The result of a rugby match is not calculated by tallying up the number of tackles or catches each individual player has made and whether these have risen since the last match. Neither is the success of a drama production measured by calculating the number of performers who did or did not remember their lines. One hundred percent of them could remember their words and it wouldn’t necessarily make a good performance. Similarly, the success of a business is not measured by how much progress each individual employee has made compared with their own progress scores of the previous year or the progress scores of employees in a neighbouring business.

The same is true of any community: it cannot be built only on the individual achievements and goals of its members. This is how society breaks down.

In delivering an assessment system that only tracks and reports on individuals’ attainment and progress, we undermine the benefits of working together. There is no synergy in an examination hall, only competition and fear. There is no value to society in creating a climate in which individual success matters more than collective responsibility and working together.

The curriculum is influenced by the need to asses its impact, delivering knowledge and skills that can be assessed efficiently and quickly. Over time, the culture falls in line too, so that it promotes independence over inter-dependence.

But it is inter-dependence on which a successful culture is built, this is the paradox for school leaders.

For each and every one of its students to make good progress will always be an important purpose of school. But are there other facets that can be observed and reported on? What might other criteria be?

The principle focus of every SEO visit to my school seems to be the number of individual pupils who are on track to meet national expectations. This is not the SEO’s fault, that is his brief. But what if he came with a different script, one that looked at long-term as well as short-term aims? Could the SEO look at how our culture is working and delivering on the values we have?

Can we design an assessment system which monitors the attitudes and character traits we espouse within our school culture and for these to enjoy equal status with academic progress scores? Can we observe and track the children’s cooperation, communication, resilience and so on? Would such an assessment system bring benefits to the curriculum and to our culture? I think it would.

What kind of curriculum can deliver these attitudes and character traits? I would suggest that the curriculum we currently have need not change significantly – it is a syllabus, not a scheme of work, after all. But if teachers and school leaders knew that their school’s performance data included a commentary on the attitudes, behaviours and skills that are best developed within group work and creative challenges, then they would feel more confident to set up group scenarios and creative projects that would deliver them. And learning objectives would reflect more than just lines from the syllabus.

How you play your part, how you participate, what you bring to the table and what attitudes you display to others – these matter as much as your own progress trajectory and scaled score. Perhaps they matter even more. For when students leave school and enter the worlds of work, relationships, family and leisure, they will soon realise that these human activities are rarely measured in attainment and progress scores alone.

Change the assessment system, and everything else can change.

 

 

 

 

 

Digging deep into school culture

A culture is conceived when shared basic assumptions create a rationale for doing things a certain way. Often such assumptions are based on an identified problem that needs solving or a perceived demand that needs meeting. A solution is found and it shapes ‘the way we do things around here’.

Take education. When state schools were first conceived, there was a shared assumption that we needed to develop academic intelligence in children – our economy needed an educated workforce. It was assumed that to be academically intelligent or ‘learned’ meant being literate, numerate and knowledgeable. The skills that a white-collar worker utilised whilst seated at his desk were held to be of greatest value.

The remedy found was to design and then formally teach a standard curriculum of subjects, which comprised core knowledge and professorial skills, to all pupils and accompany this with formal academic qualifications that tested knowledge retention, literacy and numeracy. It was assumed that pupils could be incentivised to play the game through rewards if they worked hard and sanctions if they didn’t.

These assumptions gave rise to a deeply-rooted culture, in which, above everything else, each individual needed to make good academic progress. It was the driving force behind everything that took place in a school. And it still is today, nothing has changed. Whatever you do as a teacher, whether it is instructional, pastoral, creative, enriching or just plain fun, whether it is bespoke and tailored or universal and inclusive, it will always be held up against the same aim of enabling pupils to make expected progress. ‘Have you measured the impact of this learning activity? Can you demonstrate the efficacy of that teaching strategy?’ And just recently, ‘Show me the intent, implementation and impact of what you are doing.’ (The sub-text being if you can’t demonstrate a positive impact on your students’ academic progress then you shouldn’t be doing it).

These are the deep-down roots from which school culture has grown. Assumptions led to solutions which shaped the way schools were run, and still are today.

And every year thousands of students leave school with the misbelief that they are the sum of their grades. Of course they do. It is an unintended consequence of the system – or an intended one.

But those early assumptions are now proven to be flawed. Leaders of today’s industries suggest that such an unremitting focus on academic intelligence is not delivering what is needed in the workplace. Counsellors and experts in emotional well-being suggest that the drive for academic intelligence is having a detrimental effect on too many students’ mental health and creating a binary culture of success or failure. There are calls for more resilience, emotional intelligence, communication skills and creative thinking. Of course there are. The system was never designed to deliver on those things. It could have done, but shared assumptions and beliefs held by the architects of state education at the time were focused on other things: developing literacy, numeracy and academic knowledge.

At last, new shared assumptions are building – we are identifying some problems and we are reaching out for solutions, which will in turn shape our new culture. I for one cannot wait for the new architects of our education system (whoever they may be; few Secretaries of State for Education remain in the job long enough to make sustainable changes and even fewer have any experience of education beyond their own schooling) to identify the problems, find new solutions and then let these shape the way we do things in school.

If we were to re-imagine what school is for, we would probably not begin with knowledge retention, literacy and numeracy skills. This is because we would look to the future and consider what skills, attitudes and aptitudes will be required at work, at home and in the societies and communities that surround us. Problem-solving and innovative thinking would probably rank highly, if future generations are to solve the problems we’ve bequeathed to them: an unsustainable population, dwindling resources, climate change, and so on.

If we were to identify different priorities to those of before, like social responsibility, environmental awareness, innovation, how to manage leisure time, creativity and problem-solving to be important aims for our education system to deliver on, just imagine what kind of enriching culture that would lead to.

I can continue to make significant changes to the culture in my school, as I am striving to do every day. I can continue to shout from the roof tops that it is our community values, our shared ethos and our habits for learning that are the things that really matter around here. But until major architectural work is carried out in the offices of the Department for Education by persons far cleverer than me, the cultural changes I make in my school will not take root at the deepest level. They are built on other, older roots – the roots that took hold when education was conceived a long time ago, in a different age, with a different purpose in mind.

Times can change, systems can evolve, old problems may not even be problems any more, as new ones emerge, but the solutions that were found in the past still dictate the way we do things now.